October 23, 2018

Survivor: Peter Epstein: ‘There was misery all around you’

In September 1943, Peter Epstein, along with his mother, brother and grandfather, was awakened in the middle of the night by German soldiers and their Dutch collaborators and transported by rail from Amsterdam to Westerbork, a transit camp in the northeastern Netherlands. There, Peter, then 11, mostly walked around, while his mother cared for his 16-month-old brother, Frank.

A week later, unlike tens of thousands of Amsterdam Jews who had been shipped to Westerbork and then crammed into cattle cars to Auschwitz and Sobibor, Peter, Frank and their mother — though not his grandfather — were sent home.

Peter’s father, Paul, who worked for the Amsterdam Jewish Council and had been working the night they were arrested, had arranged for their release.

Over the years, Peter has felt compelled to defend his father against allegations of collaboration, even though Paul’s job was not organizing deportations but calling the moving company, Abraham Puls & Sons, and giving them addresses of the houses forcefully vacated by Jewish families. The Jewish Council co-leaders, Abraham Asscher and David Cohen, were found guilty of collaboration by a Jewish Council of Honor after the war but were exonerated by the Dutch government in 1950.

“My argument always has been, if you can save your life and that of your family, you do anything,” Peter said in his 1995 interview with what is now the USC Shoah Foundation. “It’s a situation that’s hard to imagine.”

Still, he admitted, “[The Jewish Council] is a questionable organization.”

Peter was born on July 30, 1932, in Breslau, Germany, the son of Paul and Margit Epstein. In October 1933, with Paul struggling as an attorney as Hitler assumed power, they moved to Amsterdam.

Paul sold stationery and trinkets door-to-door for several years before establishing his own business, Epstein Stalenboek Centrale, which sold sample books to textile companies, along with pinking shears he imported from Germany.

The family lived comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment in a predominately Jewish area where, Peter said, he experienced no anti-Semitism before the war.

But life as “a regular child” ended on May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded Holland. As air raid sirens sounded at night, the family huddled in their windowless bathroom, with Peter ensconced in the tub. Five days later Holland surrendered.

By fall 1940, anti-Jewish measures began being imposed. A year later, Peter could attend only a Jewish school. And in July 1942, two months after Frank was born, deportations to Westerbork commenced.

A few weeks after being released from Westerbork, in September 1943, Peter and his family were shipped back to the transit camp. This time Paul accompanied them, which comforted Peter.

Still, Peter said, “There was misery all around you,” especially on Tuesdays when the cattle-car trains were loaded. “I just knew that people were being deported and weren’t returning.”

In January 1944, Peter and his family were jubilant to be listed for the first transport to Bergen-Belsen. They had heard it was a transit camp, where they would be exchanged with prisoners of war and sent to Palestine. But Peter contracted chickenpox, moving their departure to the second transport on Feb. 1.

The prisoners’ high spirits faded, however, when their railcars arrived in Celle, a town in north-central Germany, where they were greeted by German soldiers with rifles and bloodhounds. “At that point we knew the story was fabricated,” Peter said.

They were marched 15 miles to Bergen-Belsen’s “Star Camp,” which primarily housed Jews from Holland, who were required to wear a yellow star.

Peter spent most of his days being counted. “It was an ordeal,” sometimes lasting six hours or more, he said. He also learned the pain of hunger, which prompted him and others to steal.

Peter’s father worked in a factory outside the camp, dismantling army boots, sometimes returning home bloodied and beaten when he couldn’t meet that day’s quota. “This was basically the beginning of his end,” Peter said.

Peter, too, was fighting to stay alive. Each night, lying in his bunk, he fantasized about what he would tell his friends at home about that day. He believed nobody knew what was happening.

On April 9, 1945, with the Allies closing in, the camp was evacuated and the prisoners were loaded into cattle cars on three trains.

The train carrying Peter and his family, later known as the “lost train,” was supposed to be destined for Theresienstadt. Instead, as Allied armies approached from two sides, it zigzagged, stopping every day or two to unload dead bodies.

On the morning of April 23, after traveling two weeks, the prisoners in Peter’s car awoke to see a Soviet soldier standing outside their opened door. They had been liberated. Unable to communicate with the soldier, they watched as he picked up Frank, who was screaming, and began gently singing, quieting him.

They later learned they were in the German farming village of Troebitz, about 60 miles from Leipzig.

Peter’s family, along with three childless couples, found a farmhouse inhabited by several women who raised chickens and pigs and had cupboards filled with food. They remained there for two months.

The Americans then drove the survivors to Leipzig, where they boarded trains to Maastricht, Holland. There, doctors discovered that Peter had tuberculosis and handed him over to a Christian monastery to recuperate.

Finally, in June 1945, the family reached Amsterdam. Peter, still suffering from tuberculosis, was admitted to the Central Israel Ziekenhuis hospital.

Sometime in 1946, Peter was taken to a sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland, where doctors prescribed sleeping outside in the cold air and eating eight meals a day. His parents visited often, but in April 1947 Paul died from surgical complications. Soon after, Peter came home.

Peter returned to school in 1948, leaving in 1952 when he, Frank and their mother immigrated to Los Angeles, sponsored by a paternal cousin in Marshfield, Wis.

Peter and his mother worked assembling televisions at a factory in Van Nuys for 60 cents an hour. “It was a difficult beginning in a strange country,” he said. After a year, Peter began studying accounting at Los Angeles City College and apprenticing for a certified public accountant.

In fall 1954, Peter began working as an accountant. He opened his own practice in the San Fernando Valley in the late 1980s. He retired last year.

Peter has a son, Steven, born in 1963, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1969. He also has a stepdaughter, Natalie, born in 1970, and a daughter, Shira, born in 1975, with his second wife, who died in 1990. He married Polly Davis in November 1997. He now has three grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

Peter said he first gave testimony in 1992 to a Holocaust oral history project. For several years, he spoke at the elementary school where his daughter, Shira, teaches. This past January he began speaking at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Now 85, Peter wants to share his Holocaust experiences as often as possible. “This is a story that should stay alive,” he said. “It’s not made better or worse.” He encourages people to ask questions.

“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “There’s nothing dishonorable to tell.”